Peterson Tells All! Post-Dispatch's New Jerry Berger Is a Columnist for the 21st Century

By Sorkin, Michael D. | St. Louis Journalism Review, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Peterson Tells All! Post-Dispatch's New Jerry Berger Is a Columnist for the 21st Century


Sorkin, Michael D., St. Louis Journalism Review


She calls herself Jerry Berger's "younger, hipper, taller, cuter, little sister." It's a good line, combining the best of reporting and press agentry.

Deborah Peterson is the St Louis Post-Dispatch's new Jerry Berger: a new gossip columnist for the 21st Century.

She hopes the names and phone numbers in her Palm Pilot soon will rival those in Berger's phone book.

Unlike Jerry, a press agent who says he had no formal journalism training, Deborah has been a reporter for the Associated Press, the Kansas City Star and the Post, an editor, home interiors writer, movie reviewer and feature writer. She also had a brief stint as an editorial page writer. She may be the only gossip columnist ever to share in a Pulitzer Prize for reporting--for helping cover the collapse of the Kansas City Hyatt Hotel skywalks in 1981.

Colleagues describe her as tough but say her biggest assets are her smile and an ability to win friends-and get them to tell all about themselves.

Veteran reporter John McGuire recalls how Deborah interviewed a waitress at Hooters and got the young woman from a small town in Illinois to admit how she'd leave home in the morning disguised in a restaurant outfit with long sleeves and slacks. When she got to Union Station, where the restaurant is, she'd go into a restroom and emerge in her revealing Hooters garb.

"I've always gotten a kick out of the way colleagues make pilgrimages to tell Deborah their tales of woe and glee," says business reporter Judy Vandewater. "It was as if she had hung out a shingle. She asks personal questions in a way that is not prying or threatening. I think she sees and feeds the life spark in people."

Vandewater recalls that when a mutual friend used to regularly give parties, Deborah's late husband, Mark (1999), often stayed home with their three children, but Deborah never missed a party.

Deborah also is a devoted mother; for most of her 18-year career at the Post, she worked part-time, always remembering that her kids come first. Friends remember her grace under pressure after Mark's sudden death, and how she went to work full-time, continuing to raise her three teen-age children.

Of her new job, Chicago native Deborah, 49, says she wants to learn what Jerry knows. "I want the master to teach me who's who and what's what in St. Louis," she says. "And then I want to make up my own list of people in the Bold Face Crowd and make sure their names get in our paper."

She'll go to Friday night fish fries in Illinois and bold face the names of the cooks and crew who fish up the cod. She'll go to Bunko nights on the Hill and tell you who won the door prize and who went home a loser. She'll hit the monster truck pulls and the Affton Fourth of July baseball tournament. She plans to hit Washington Avenue, the Delmar Loop, the Halo Bar inside The Pageant, City Museum, the Chocolate Bar and the beauty salons.

She'll have to do all that to match Berger's tireless energy. For years, Jerry has been known as the hardest working journalist in town and his column is a must-read. To Jerry, retirement means having to write just two columns a week.

Berger's will run Sunday and Wednesday. Beginning this month, the Post adds Deborah's column on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

How does Jerry do it? "I've always considered my column the backyard fence, the crackerbarrel," he answers. "I'd cover a garage opening if I knew it would yield fodder for the column."

Berger turns 70 in June and says he'll continue to work 18 hours a week for as long as he feels good. "It's time," he says of his retirement decision.

If Deborah weren't a reporter, she'd probably be in the advice business. She loves to give it and even complete strangers seem to crave it. Sometimes, they'll approach her in the ladies' room to ask for help. In my case, she gives dating advice. (Is it her fault I'm usually too shy to take it?

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